Are Dog Parks Worth the Risk?

Cali holds her tennis ball at Jacob's Island dog park, early on a cold morning. A light dusting of snow covers the grass.

The current issue of the Whole Dog Journal has a section on dog parks. Though the article itself offers solid commentary and advice (of course it does; Pat Miller wrote it!), the sidebar with comments from several trainers is pretty negative. I’ve been to a lot of dog parks, so I figured this was a good chance to weigh in.

If you are thinking about heading out to the dog park, start with Miller’s seven things to consider, but don’t neglect an honest look at your dog(s), the dog’s needs, and your own circumstances.

My best dog park experience was in Petaluma, where Jana, Cali, and I walked to a local park every day (sometimes twice!). The park has posted off-leash dog run hours and is mostly fenced. When we discovered it shortly after moving to Petaluma, a regular group of dogs and their people could be found there. We soon became part of the 8 am crowd. Jana greeted each human and inspected their pockets and hands for treats, Cali occasionally played with suitable dogs but mostly bugged me to throw her ball, and I got to hang out with some fun and interesting dog-loving people. Over the three and a half years we lived in Petaluma, dogs passed away, new puppies joined the crowd, and the human group changed. Toward the end of our time there, Jana was gone, and Cali found the group of mainly young, high-energy dogs less to her liking. I was working in an office, so we went much earlier in the morning on weekdays and had the place mostly to ourselves. Weekends were more challenging.

Now, in our first Missoula, Montana, winter, we’ve joined Wagg’n, an indoor dog park. It’s also a daycare and boarding business, so the mix of dogs varies. We’re getting to know some of the daycare regulars, and Cali and I each have our favorites. Like the Petaluma park, it’s not divided into small- and large-dog areas, which would worry me more if I had a small dog. Cali’s not that interested in boisterous group play, but she usually finds one or two smaller dogs, goldens, or Labs to play with (she’s kind of a doggy racist and likes only retrievers and little dogs). Being inside changes the nature of the space considerably; it’s echo-ey in a way that an outdoor park is not, and dogs do play differently on the rubber-matted floor (with a nicely designed astroturf potty area) than they would on grass or dirt.

Before the weather turned cold and mornings became dark, we went to Jacob’s Island, Missoula’s downtown dog park, several times a week. We went early, though, on purpose, so Cali and I could play ball without her having to worry that some other dog would “steal” her ball.

These are my primary experiences of having a “regular” park, but I’ve been a drop-in visitor at dozens of dog parks. I’ve driven cross country multiple times with multiple dogs. And when traveling with dogs anywhere that’s more than about 4 hours, I generally look for a place to let the dog run and stretch her legs. Visiting dog parks “on the way” does not allow for the type of research that Miller advises, but I approach these visits as I would any new place I take my dogs. I watch for a few minutes to get a sense of the energy level, see what kinds of play the dogs are engaged in, and I look at whether the people are paying attention to their dogs or just looking at phones or talking to each other and “letting dogs be dogs.”

Like the trainers quoted in the WDJ article, I’ve heard lots of dog park horror stories, and I know that a bad experience can lead to serious injury (or worse); at minimum, it can set back your training and socialization goals considerable, shake your dog’s confidence, or lead him to fear other dogs. Though I have never personally had a bad dog park experience, I am not unaware of the risks.

I won’t take a dog into a park where I see lots of wild or rough play or people who are not paying attention to the dogs. If I cannot tell which people go with which dogs, I take that as a bad sign. The people need to be obviously watching what is going on with their dogs; otherwise, how can they intervene if needed? The person has to be the dog’s advocate and protector in any social situation, whether with other dogs or with humans (especially if children are around). I’ve leashed up my dogs and left parks where the dynamic changes, a particularly troublesome dog enters, or I feel that things are getting too wild.

At the same time, looking for dog parks is as much a part of my road-trip planning as looking for pet-friendly hotels. I can’t imagine asking my dog to spend 8-10 hours in the car without giving her a chance to run and play. Often, just wanting to throw the ball for a few minutes, I look for a corner or end of the park with fewer dogs and head there. If another dog seems overly interested in Cali’s ball, rather than subject her to the stress of worrying about it, I’ll pick up the ball and instead lead Cali on a brisk walk around the perimeter of the park.

The bottom line is that, while aware of potential problems with dog parks, I am usually willing to try out a park and find a way to make it work for my dog and our needs at the moment. I’d never leave Cali unsupervised, and that means no phone either — eyes on the dog at all times (I do sometimes take photos). It also means watching other dogs and intervening if they are rough, pushy, or overwhelming to Cali. Finally, it means being ready to pick up and leave quickly if necessary.

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4 thoughts on “Are Dog Parks Worth the Risk?

  1. We have a large dog park a short drive away, and took Ray around the perimeter fence (on the outside) so we could monitor his reactions, and also so we could monitor the overall “culture” in there. On the basis of what we saw, Ray has never been in that park! It was clearly a social centre for the humans while the dogs did “their thing”. Sadly, “their thing” was to give a small dog a rough time and nobody intervened (if they even noticed). Overall it was a canine Wild West.

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